Few statements are more revealing of ignorance than the standard conservative indictment of socialism for “equally spreading poverty.” According to this critique, poverty happens when socialism’s insistence on equality of conditions deprives people of the incentive to work. Such statements so offend reality as to lead one to ask whether those who make them have ever opened their eyes in a socialist country.
No. Socialism makes for the most radical of inequalities among human beings, and enforces them through the state’s absolute power.
Note: Places like Denmark and Sweden, and even Germany, France, Italy, or Argentina, though their governments spend about half the national income, or more, are not socialist. Instead, they have a greater or lesser degree of corporate capitalism, a system first introduced by Benito Mussolini in Italy in the 1920s, in the United States in the 1930s, and that thereafter was copied throughout much of the world.
Under this system, as government power mixes with, counterbalances, and often overrides private enterprise, people often find government favor to be an adjunct to success—or even the main avenue to it. Everywhere in the modern world, having the government on your side makes up for much lack of talent, enterprise, decency, etc. But you can still do all right on your own, so long as you don’t get the corporate state down on you.
But in full-blooded socialist systems—the Soviet Union was prototypical—like Cuba, China, and Venezuela access to government power is the paramount avenue to success. So much so, that all assets pale in importance by comparison.
Talent and enterprise seldom hurt. But if you see someone prosper, you can be sure that he is well connected with the powers that be. Under real socialism, prosperity and power are two sides of the same coin. Always. Invariably.
Food is the most fundamental feature of prosperity or lack thereof.
Having grown up amidst the widespread hunger of immediate postwar Italy, I was all too familiar with the difference that food makes in how people look. The faces of people who are short of any and all calories are gray, sallow, as well as thin and haggard. Eyes are sunk. Those who get enough starchy food but little if any meat or fish, or maybe even fat, tend to be white and a bit puffy. Their skin does not shine. Those who get the fat and protein they want but lack fresh vegetables and fruit tend to be heavy, shiny. Only those who eat well-balanced diets look the way people are supposed to look.
My first visit to the Soviet Union in January 1979 brought back these visceral memories. Along with the senators whom I served as an expert on weaponry, I dined at Brezhnev’s table in the Kremlin. Good food. The high-ranking Soviets with whom we were surrounded would not have looked out of place in California.
But theirs was a thin social stratum. As we left, some of them pocketed some of the oranges from the table’s centerpiece. The people who attended them and who drove us around looked like they had little if any access to such things as oranges. The attendants at the elite hotel where we were staying were fat but pasty. As we walked the streets, I was struck by how many looked haggard.
When we conferred with the generals, I noticed that food-dependent physiognomy matched rank. The generals looked like us. The colonels obviously did not eat as well.
We managed to get to see the great Andrei Sakharov, in his humble two-room flat in a fifth-floor walk-up at the Academy of Sciences. His wife brought out a tiny apple cake that must have been a rare treasure for these out-of-favor folks.
In 1989, after the Berlin Wall fell, there was a brief and quickly forgotten spate of stories in the media about the lavish lifestyle that East Germany’s Communist elite lived within a compound walled off from the surrounding poverty. How could such things happen in a country dedicated to equality?
The answer is not just that the people who run socialist systems are as selfish as anybody else on the planet. It is that the power of redistribution that is inherent in socialism further corrupts those who dispense favors, and much incentivizes the ordinary people over whom that power is wielded to corrupt themselves into becoming favor seekers.
Yet another human reality contributes to making socialism the degrading horror that it is. The power to control who gets what, especially who gets to eat what and who does not get to eat at all, is the most powerful lever of control over the general population. Because of that, Lenin figured out right away that poverty, especially hunger, are to be sought for their own sake. Keeping the people worried where their next meal is coming from, and reminding them that their bread is literally buttered only on the regime side is socialism’s indispensable element.
Fidel Castro in Cuba, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua made redistribution of poverty into their regimes’ very foundation.
In 1985, just after I got to Stanford, I was asked to meet with a group of undergraduates who were on their way to “learn” about Nicaragua’s Sandinista regime, and to “help out” the Campesinos in the fields.
The most expressively progressive attitude belonged to a very fashionable girl, who sat cross-legged on the floor, her perfectly groomed blond hair washing over decidedly un-muscular thighs. Looking at her, I asked how many hours of field labor they planned to contribute, what they thought the Campesinos were paid for that many hours, and what they thought might be the relationship between the worth of the labor they provided and the price of the food they would eat.
They had not thought of that. Since they would be eating with their Sandinista guides, I asked whether they would be eating like the guides eat or like the Campesinos eat. They had not imagined there would be a difference. I assured them that the Campesinos knew the difference too well. What would they be thinking of you, who worked less than they and ate better than they?
I suggested that, if they paid attention to the difference between what the party eats and what the people eat, as well as to the difference between what their un-muscular pseudo-labor was worth and the value of their food, they might be able to figure out why the Sandinista regime wanted their presence. And if they figured that out, they might want to ask themselves how honest of an enterprise socialism is, especially its claim to be equality’s champion.